An Early Description of a Professional Tattoo Kit from the German Underworld

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Near the end of the 19th century a pickpocket was arrested in the German town of Mainz. This was in itself an ordinary occurrence, but in his belongings were discovered a notebook full of drawings, many of them categorized by profession, along with vials of red and black ink and wooden needles, all housed in a spectacle case. The drawings in the album were templates for tattoos, and the man claimed to have purchased this kit from a tattoo artist in the mountains, who specialized in the sale of these kits – perhaps named Joseph Ragozet.

 

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The kit so fascinated judge Fritz Eller that he sent along a description of the kit, along with photographs of the drawings, to the sociologist and criminologist Franz Gross, which is how this early and valuable documentation of a portable tattoo kit in the German underworld came to be published in a periodical devoted to criminal anthropology. Like much of the scarce early modern research into tattoos, it comes from a criminological or medical standpoint. Gross was fascinated enough by the case to contribute a foreward to the article, in which he makes the claim that this may be the first description of such a commercial, portable kit. There must have been earlier descriptions – if you know of any, please get in touch.

 

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Eller fortunately goes into some detail on the method of tattooing. The design is first drawn onto the flesh with the drawing as a template and then the long wooden needles, also dipped in ink, puncture the skin. Smaller tattoos could be done in as little time as a quarter of an hour with this method. According to this account, the wooden needles were very painful, and customers often vomited or passed out from the pain, or interrupted the process, often leaving a partial tattoo.

 

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The drawings are strikingly beautiful, direct in line but finely detailed and very expressive. The division according to occupation is especially fascinating from an anthropological standpoint, indicating the sort of workers who might get a tattoo – there are plenty of designs for seamen, of course, but also portrayed are Seiltänzerin (funambulist or tightrope walker), Kufeltänzerin (juggler), Ballspieler (ball player?), zirkusreiterin (circus rider), Räuberhauptmann (Robber chief), Maurer (bricklayer), Bäcker (baker), Barbier (barber), Metzger (butcher), taubenkönigin, Schlosser (locksmith), Kutscher (coachman), etc.  – all the best occupations, though unfortunately we don’t find one for bookseller.

 

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Eller, Fritz. ‘Ein Vorlagebuch für Tätowierungen’ in Archiv für Kriminal-Anthropologie und Kriminalistik 19. Band, 1. u 2. Heft. Leipzig: Verlag von F. C. W. Vogel, 1905. 8vo, 207 pp, rebound at an early date in brown leatherette over marbled boards, titled in gilt at the spine.

Please visit the Tattooing section of our website to view other rare tattoo books at DL.

The Character of the Tattoo in Modern Europe

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Rudolf Erhard Riecke (1869-1939) was a dermatologist and the first director of the influential department of skin and venereal diseases at the University of Gottingen. In 1925, as an outgrowth of his research he published Das Tatauierungswesen im Heutigen Europa. The book has never been translated into English, or reprinted, as far as I can tell in any language, which is unfortunate as it is one of the most valuable early studies of the early modern European tattoo.

Riecke compared the symbolism of the modern tattoo, especially with regard to erotic and criminal tattoos, as found  on the bodies of circus performers, seamen, criminals and members of the underworld, and concluded that the motivations and symbolism of the modern European tattoo were distinct from the conclusions of anthropological studies of non-Western cultures at the time.

The latter part of the book is taken up with a generous section of b/w photographic plates reproducing 94 photographs of tattoos – certainly one of the most important published photographic records we have of its kind. A number of the tattoos are erotic, and there is one excellent photograph of a full penis tattoo (fig. 80).

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The Tattoo Historian website has a great post on the mystery posed by an excised example of this plate in a library copy of the book.

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Riecke, Erhard. Das Tatauierungswesen im Heutigen Europa. Jena: Gustav Fischer, 1925. 4to, 40 pp. + 24 photographic plates, reproducing 94 photographs.

 Contact us if you’d like to be informed about the availability of this title from Division Leap, or to be notified about future examples we might find in our travels.